John Luther Adams Remembers William Colvig

John Luther Adams Remembers William Colvig

William Colvig with Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams
Photo by Dennis Keeley

Musician and instrument builder, engineer and mountaineer William Colvig died on March 1, 2000 in Capitola California, at the age of 82.

Born in Medford, Oregon on March 13, 1917, Bill grew up in Weed, California at the base of Mt. Shasta where he developed his lifelong passion for the mountains and learned to play several musical instruments. At the College (now University) of the Pacific and the University of California Berkeley, he studied both music and electrical engineering. He later combined his musical and technical talents, designing and building with composer Lou Harrison the first complete American Gamelan. Over the years, Colvig and Harrison built many other instruments based on models from around the world, tuned in just intonation and other acoustically-perfect tunings.

In addition to being musical collaborators, Bill and Lou were life partners. At a time when gay couples were still largely invisible to the straight world, they openly and tenderly showed their profound love for one another. Their thirty-three years of shared life and devotion is a model and an inspiration for all couples.

Over the years, as their flowing beards and hair turned white, Lou and Bill grew to resemble one another more and more. But Bill’s lithe frame, the spring in his step and the twinkle in his eye also gave him a more than passing resemblance to John Muir. Like Muir, Bill was an ardent advocate for wilderness, who passionately loved the Sierra Nevada and led many trips into the Range of Light for the Sierra Club (founded by Muir). As he wanted it, Bill’s ashes will be scattered among those rugged mountains.

Along with Lou, Bill always warmly welcomed younger composers and musicians into the beautiful home they shared overlooking the Pacific. Over the years, Lou and Bill hosted me for several memorable visits. In 1988, I had the great pleasure of welcoming them to Alaska, for a residency and concert with the Fairbanks Symphony. This was Lou’s first visit to Alaska. But it was homecoming for Bill. In the late 30’s he had left Berkeley to live for several years on the rough and ready frontier of Alaska and the Yukon, and he was thrilled to be back in the North again.

William with Gamelan
Photo by Dennis Keeley

For their concert, Lou and Bill brought with them the Sundanese gamelan degung, Sekar Kembar. As far as we can tell, this was the first time a gamelan had been heard “live” in Alaska. Bill played various instruments in the ensemble, and he was featured as soloist playing the suling flute in Lou’s tunefully-sunny Main Bersama-sama for horn, suling and gamelan.

After the concert, Lou and Bill came out to my cabin for a party. My place was deep in the woods. I had no running water and heated with a wood stove. The temperature in the boreal forest that night was well into the forty-somethings below zero. Accustomed to warmer climes, Lou was good-humored in his forbearance. But Bill was in his element. The colder it got, the better he liked it. The aurora borealis dancing in the sky that night was the icing on his cake.

Bill Colvig was one of a kind — a true original’s original. His impish grin and mischievous laugh, his irrepressible enthusiasm and unbridled joy in living will remain always in the hearts of everyone who knew him. The beautiful instruments and the rich life he created with Lou Harrison will be his enduring musical legacy to the world.

When Bill’s spirit left his body, Lou was at his side, holding his hand. “It was a peaceful death”, says his soul-mate. “He was so beautiful. Like a beautiful animal returning to Nature.”

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